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Police reporter Jim Miller, at your service

It's the fall of 1955, and there's a virtual mob war going on in Portland. So where, you might well ask, is the press, that watchdog of democracy, in all this?

Rest assured that at least one member of the Fourth Estate, James Burr Miller of The Oregonian, is on the scent.

He's not quite on the trail of the titanic struggle taking place, as we speak, between the city and county machines for control of the Portland payoff. But at least he's got an inkling that the payoff exists. You gotta start somewhere.

Miller, who is 27 years old, has been assigned recently to cover the police beat for his paper. He's heard rumors of the payoff before, but until one fateful day in September, when he bumps into Jack Olsen in the second-floor hallway of the police station, that's all they are Ñ rumors.

Olsen, a bright young officer Ñ actually just a year younger than Miller Ñ is upset. When Miller asks him why, he says he's been offered a bribe. Just a few dollars, mind you, but a bribe nevertheless. It appears that officers on his new beat Ñ the Avenue, as the police call the black part of town Ñ routinely accept money from neighborhood racketeers in exchange for looking the other way.

What's more, when he objected, suggesting to his partner that maybe someone should tell their superiors about it, his partner had scoffed at him: 'Who do you think's running it, anyway?'

• • •

Olsen says he's going to seek a transfer, but Miller talks him out of it. Since it's probably going to be the same anyplace else, he says, why not stay on and document the criminal wrongdoing? Olsen agrees to start keeping records of the payoff money he receives Ñ in effect, conducting an undercover operation against the Portland Police Bureau. It's not exactly what Olsen had in mind when he joined the force a year ago, No. 1 in his recruiting class. But he doesn't know what else to do.

There are five places along Olsen's beat that make the monthly payoff. Four of them are gambling joints, the main one being Tom Johnson's Keystone Club at the corner of Williams and Cherry Ñ near where Memorial Coliseum someday will be Ñ plus a bawdy house at 1420 N. Larrabee Ave. Each one gives $10 to $20 a month to every cop who walks the beat. Every time Olsen gets his cut, he dutifully records the event, right down to the serial numbers of the bills he receives.

It isn't much, of course. But their plan is to work their way up the ladder to the big boys. And when they've accumulated enough damning evidence, Miller will write the exposŽ that'll bring down the whole corrupt system.

• • •

What they don't understand, of course, is that there are actually two payoffs. There's the big one, which is collected each month by the precinct captains, then distributed to their superiors at police headquarters and City Hall. This is the prize, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars annually Ñ millions in 2002 dollars Ñ that makes the wheels of city government go 'round.

The other payoff, the one that they've stumbled onto, involves the small monthly payoffs of $10 or $20 Ñ'smile money,' as it is known at the time Ñ collected by beat officers. The two are quite separate.

If Olsen and Miller knew this, perhaps they wouldn't be going to all the trouble. On the other hand, maybe it wouldn't change anything. Official corruption is, after all, official corruption. And besides, as already noted, they both are quite young.

Without divulging the name of his contact in the police bureau, Miller tells his editors about the plan. Out of what might be construed as prudence, they tell Miller to get the OK of the county's top law enforcement official, District Attorney William Langley, before going any further.

Langley listens politely but declines to get involved Ñ not too surprisingly, since he is at that moment deeply involved in an attempt to seize control of the payoff system. He simply doesn't have the manpower to devote to such a task, he says. But at least Miller now has permission to proceed.

• • •

Also not surprisingly, word of Miller's project soon leaks out. The chief, Diamond Jim Purcell himself, suddenly becomes quite friendly, offering Miller his assistance in his investigation. When Miller refuses to tell him who his undercover source is, Capt. Bob Mariels Ñ whose wife, if Miller only knew, operates a bootlegging establishment out of their home Ñ drops by to offer Miller a membership in the Footprinters Society.

The Footprinters is a fraternal order of law enforcement professionals who get together once a month to get drunk and watch stag shows. Miller declines Mariels' kind offer, saying he doesn't have enough money to join.

Of course, the vice squad puts a tail on Miller, but they can't figure out who he's been talking to. Miller and Olsen are too smart. They call each other from phone booths. They meet in out-of-the-way places, entering department stores by one entrance and leaving by another to throw off anyone who might be following. For all anyone knows, they're onto the big one.

Mariels comes back. He's found a sponsor willing to cover the Footprinters' membership fee. But first, Mariels says, the sponsor would like to meet with him Ñ just to get to know him better, you understand. Miller says sure.

Mariels sets up a meeting in the cocktail lounge of the Multnomah Hotel, which 35 years from now will be replaced by Pioneer Place. When Miller and Mariels arrive, who should be sitting at the table but Jim Elkins.

Miller recognizes Elkins. He knows he's supposed to be the mob boss of Portland. After a few minutes of chitchat, Mariels get up, leaving Miller and Elkins alone in the dimly lit lounge. Elkins leans across the table.

'This is for the club,' he says in his gravelly voice. Miller feels the touch of something under the table. It's an envelope with a thick wad of bills.

Miller says he can't accept the money. He's a reporter, after all.

'You're in very interesting profession,' he says, trying to be clever. 'Who knows, I might have to accept an assignment to write about you some day.'

Elkins sits back.

'Anyone who would do that would not be very smart,' he says very slowly. 'Accidents happen. You could fall and hit your head and wake up in the river. Or there could be a fire.

'You're a family man. You have children. Sometimes houses catch fire during the night, and everyone is killed. Do you understand what I mean?'

Continued next Friday